Tech – Wireless Networks and Industrial Automation

Xavier Bush
Jesper Lindström
Prof. James Gross

It’s common knowledge that Industry 4.0, or Industrial IoT, is eagerly seeking solutions to enable the manufacturing shop floor of tomorrow. Emerging business models (such as product individualization) demand that automation engineering must become far more flexible, mobile and scalable than it is currently. The keystone of this evolution are wireless networks, however an entrenched perception remains that wireless technology isn’t yet at the stage to meet the robust requirements of an automated factory. Why is this the case? 

The answer can be found in the 1980s and 90s, when the automation industry was upgrading and streamlining its processes. Researchers soon learned that reliable machine-to-machine communication is by far one of the most important factors in machine efficiency. As a result, automation systems incorporated wired industrial fieldbus solutions to reduce cabling and simplify architectures. Fieldbus was a significant success and dominates the automation industry to this day. It was largely possible due to an ideal business/technology alignment at the time the technology was introduced.    

To extrapolate, business models and technology levels are the two primary factors that have stagnated wireless industrial automation since the 1990s. In the case of business models, automation market pressure to move towards wireless has so far been low to non-existent. Wired fieldbus solutions have met performance and operational requirements perfectly well, not to mention that the automation industry has a slow-moving and conservative attitude to new technologies. This is because tried-and-true reliability is the number one concern for an industry overseeing complex processes. In the case of technology levels, commercially available wireless technologies were still in their infancy when fieldbus was being adopted in the 1980s and 90s, and were not at that time a viable alternative. Things are beginning to change, however.

Ongoing interest in Industry 4.0 has created new market pressure for reliable industrial wireless solutions. Wireless technologies (mainly cellular and Wi-Fi) have thrived in the consumer market, yet an entrenched belief remains that wireless solutions aren’t robust or reliable enough to replace cables in real-time critical applications. Given that wireless R&D has made huge strides in the past 25 years, is this notion still as valid in 2020 as it was in 1995?

We will dig into and ultimately answer this question over a series of five interrelated posts:

  • The first, “Wireless Propagation Effects and Their Impact on Reliable Transmissions” addresses the random self-interference effects that occur in the wireless propagation environment itself.
  • The second and third, “Avoiding Collisions: Adding Determinism to My Network” and “Interference: How Other Wireless Networks Affect Mine”, focus on the interference issues that arise when multiple nodes (often electromagnetic transceivers) transmit on the same radio frequencies. Wireless interference is one of the key challenges to overcome before entrusting critical operations to wireless systems.
  • The fourth, “Wireless Security in the Ring” deals with the all-important topic of wireless security, and the innovative new security solution integrated with EchoRing.
  • The fifth, “Roaming: Transitioning from Network to Network in Real-Time” highlights the importance of roaming networks for mobile stations, a key Industry 4.0 use case.

This series will demonstrate that the challenges industrial wireless faces can absolutely be tackled with smart solutions. Just as wired fieldbus systems did decades ago, industrial wireless networks like EchoRing represent an ideal business/technology alignment for the automation industry going forward.   

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